The Joy Menu #59: Breath
My beloved, horrendous asthma—granting me access to him, to his attention, to his tenderness, his softest love.
It’s harder to write about the difficulties. Easier to rest in reverie for the beauties of a man. Harder: the years he was unhappy. And the unhappiness that bled into us, his family, his kids...
On the weekends, if we had plans, there was always the risk of a U-turn—the fear that if from the backseat we’d tussle (no, that’s my hot wheel!) he’d pull the plug and we’d lose the outing, even if the outing was his idea, his interest: an art museum, a beachside drive, a sculpture garden.
Sometimes we’d even get to the point of pulling into the parking lot, seeing the entryway, or passing the gates, and then… We couldn’t help ourselves—we’d lose it, disagree, squeal, the cork popping from a carbonated bottle not to celebrate, but to expel the overly shaken insides, and our shrill yells, defending invisible lines, would fill the small car and we knew, we knew that it had enraged him, that it was already too late, we were turning around, it was over, and yet we couldn’t help ourselves (it was my hot wheel!)…
At home, later, the punishment: regret at having caused the rage that ruined the day, that robbed us of our outing, that triggered our hasty return. Regret, long and quiet, low like a simmer. The rest of the day on the couch, staring at the neighborhood, the usual, boredom—an entrapment in silence, in mundanity—while his steaming mood ripples once and again through the house, beating waves of nuclear heat (another kind of silence).
For hours, for years, it would lay on me with a heaviness that refused to lift, wouldn’t release, wouldn’t let me breathe.
So perhaps it’s no wonder that I struggled to breathe.
My beloved, horrendous asthma—granting me access to him, to his attention, to his tenderness, his softest love: how he took care of me, carried me into bed, brought me my medicine, drove me from doctor to doctor, office to office, for chest scans and x-rays and breathing tests, hospital visits, shots, serums, pills.
And because he never slept, I could always trust he’d hear me breathing, or hear me not breathing, raspy and rough, and he’d scoop me into his bed, into his arms, into the car for the next round of cures.
And that was closeness; that was attention, care, love. Was it not?
But even still, it could be scary. The inhaled medicine before school, his large arms and broad shoulders; the way a bronchitis could settle in as if from nowhere, after soccer practice but before dinner—a few squeals, squeaks, a stray cough expelled from some deep corner of a lung.
When he yelled, the house shook. When he growled, we hid. But when he held his arms around us for balance, in fear, in uncertainty, in breathlessness—there was no greater stability, no greater calm.
I stand with my mother in the back of the house. It’s only one story; there is nowhere to go. She and I cower. She sends Benny (I think, even now: we send Benny), the smallest, the guileless, to check the temperature, to gauge his mood (“go see if your father is calm…”)
It’s my role to comfort her. Or is that just what I do? (“We’re the gentle ones, the sensitive ones…”) Easier to agree when the alternative is frightening. Even years later, a text, “Your father is in a mood; can you call him? It always cheers him up to hear from you…”
If you could change the weather with a phone call, wouldn’t you?
Yesterday, at the park with friends: Who likes kids? Not me, I think. “I didn’t even like kids when I was a kid.” It gets a laugh. It’s not untrue; I like them more now, with some distance…
But where did this idea come from? What kid version of me felt unwanted, burdensome, unliked? What young me looked around at other kids and felt rejection, fear, dislike?
Who, in fear, called forth love by not breathing—and resented that one fear was required to quell another?
Who grasped for comfort by gasping for breath? Cut anger with breathlessness? Sacrificed play for sickness? Held out for love by holding in air?
And now, when COVID sweeps in and wraps my lungs in fire, who to call out for—who is left to respond, to rescue me from dreamless, sleepless stupor? To help me refill my lungs with soft, warm air?
Who left to hold? Who left to calm? Who left to soothe? Who left to comfort?
Onward toward creative joy,
"When he yelled, the house shook. When he growled, we hid. But when he held his arms around us for balance, in fear, in uncertainty, in breathlessness—there was no greater stability, no greater calm."